Thursday, September 13, 2012

Suburban Town Centers: Friend or Faux?

It's 7:00 PM on a Monday evening, and I'm sitting in a chair in the middle of Rockville's "Town Square," situated along a few blocks just east of Rockville Pike and across the street from the Rockville Metro station. A father, his daughter and their dog play on the faux lawn at the center of the square, while a fountain spews water up from the ground behind me. The fountain is situated in front of a performance stage where, several nights a week, musical performances take place. The square hosts a farmer's market on Saturdays that is very popular in the community. Surrounding the square, and branching out along streets in every direction, is a dense cluster of restaurants, bars, shops and galleries, with new ones opening seemingly every week. (Both American Tap Room and Dawson's Market, an upscale grocery store from Ellwood Thompson, are set to open here next month.) A new library sits at a prominent corner in the neighborhood. And above it all are thousands of residents who are seeking the suburban life without forsaking the conveniences--or feel--of city living. Perhaps most surprising of all, there are people walking about in what once was a deader-than-a-doornail suburban government center off of a strip mall-dominated suburban highway. It's a scene that was difficult to imagine as recently as five years ago.

Has Georgetown come to Rockville?

 It's a question posed by Washington Post reporter Jonathan O'Connell in his recent piece for the Post's Outlook section. O'Connell looks at the spurt of "town center"-type developments that have sprung up across the region and the country over the past 15 years and asks whether developers have been successful in exporting city life to the suburbs.

 As a transplanted city dweller who has found himself in the middle of that most suburban of suburbs, Rockville/North Bethesda/White Flint, it's a question I've pondered myself over the last year or so. After all, our immediate neighborhood is Ground Zero for Montgomery County's efforts to "urbanize" the stretch of Rockville Pike around the White Flint Metro Station. It's a neighborhood that, until very recently, was home mainly to an indoor shopping mall, row after row of nondescript strip malls, car dealerships and gas stations. However, with the opening last year of the first phase of the North Bethesda Market project, and several mega-developments currently under construction or about to break ground, Montgomery County is banking heavily on the "town center" model to attract and retain the young professionals and families that have found places like Bethesda, Silver Spring and Virginia's Orange Line corridor more attractive options. The term "urban" gets thrown around a lot by both developers and city officials when describing these developments.

But are these places really "urban"?

The scene I described in the opening paragraph above certainly sounds urban: people, shops and restaurants, density, community. So why do critics, as O'Connell notes, assail suburban town centers as soulless faux-cities, "no more real cities than Disney World's fairy-tale fiberglass-and-concrete showpiece is a real castle?"

A big part of it, I would argue, comes from where they are situated. Let's consider a neighborhood like Dupont Circle, a description of which wouldn't sound wholly far off from the scene I described above. What makes Dupont "feel" different than Rockville Town Center? There are obvious things like the age of the buildings, which predate those in central Rockville by a hundred years or more. The buildings have a history: what is now an upscale wine bar may at one time have been a mens clothing store that sold Duke Ellington his first suit, or a People's Drug. And there is the make-up of the crowd itself, which is something O'Connell gets into a bit. The people are more diverse, and the eccentricities are more pronounced. Dupont, and other urban neighborhoods, aren't quite so manicured; they look more "authentic." But do people really hop on the Metro in Rockville for a night out in Dupont primarily because they may see a woman with a tattoo?

 The problem with "town center" developments, as I see it, isn't the town centers themselves--it's what's around them. They don't feel like part of a cohesive urban fabric, and they don't mesh with their surroundings. They are the place one goes to feel like you've entered a city, before hopping back in your car and driving home somewhere that doesn't feel like that at all. They feel contrived because they exist apart from everything around them--like building an opulent Victorian mansion in the middle of a Toll Brothers community of by-the-numbers single family homes. When you're in Logan, or H Street, or Columbia Heights, or Dupont, there is a feeling of connected-ness, to go along with a volume of people and an energy and vibrancy that the sometimes admittedly-sterile "town centers" have difficulty delivering.

I drove up to Rockville Town Center this evening, which is situated several miles north of our White Flint home. I drove on a six-lane divided highway past countless strip malls, car dealerships and gas stations. I drove past a golf course, and a self-storage facility. I drove past stretches of road where the sidewalk was barely visible, and through intersections that even the most hardy of pedestrians fear to cross. Forget bike lanes; cyclists on the Pike are as rare as speakeasy cocktail lounges up here. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, I entered Rockville's own urban utopia, the Rockville Town Center, meant to show that central DC doesn't have a monopoly on enticing, dense urbanity. It doesn't help that the "town center" itself is not focused on or geared towards the area's main thoroughfare, Rockville Pike, making it feel even more cut-off.

 Of course the juxtaposition was jarring.

But it's not necessarily an indictment of the town center itself. As it happens, I think Rockville Town Center, and others like it, are several tremendous steps in the right direction for suburban development. What's bad about building pedestrian-focused, dense, vibrant, walkable communities? Particularly ones directly across the street from Metro stations? Not much, I'd argue. There is a reason town centers are popular: they deliver a slice of what people say they want. And judging by their commercial success, the people do indeed want it. And clustering people, services and amenities near each other and near transit hubs makes tremendous sense. And yet, something feels missing.

 Dan Reed, who runs the Just Up the Pike blog, tweeted: "Calling new suburban town centers "fake" is lazy. Everything was new once! If done well, they'll get better with time." I agree with this, but I'd go a step further: not only will these town center developments likely improve with age, but as more suburban developers latch on to the "town center" model, I'd argue that these bastions of supposedly faux-urbanity will begin to feel slightly less "faux" and slightly more "legitimate". Consider what close-in suburbs such as Arlington and Bethesda have been able to achieve along their commercial corridors, and imagine that spread out among father-afield locales such as Rockville and Reston. That, to me, is the future of suburban development. It may not feel particularly "real" to someone used to bar-hopping along Barrack's Row or Adams Morgan, but there was a time when those places were new, too. Just give it some time.


paulwhit said...

I appreciate you covering your new zone! RTS a nice place to be, family friendly, and it's a good concentration of activities, restaurants and shops. It's not important to me whether or not it feels like urban living. I loved living at 14th & U DC for two years, and the diversity and charm was awesome. But it was dirty and unfriendly at times too. RTS's not urban in those ways and that's ok with me! Possibly the indictment is that the square doesn't have character...a slightly different question I suppose.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad SOMEONE is writing abt this greater south rockville, east wheaton, north bethesda, west potomac area. i have 2 young children & i personally love it. welcome!